DONETSK, UKRAINE - The newly elected leader of a self-proclaimed republic in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday promised closer ties to Moscow following polls denounced by Kiev and the West as a sham.
Elections in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk at the weekend saw their acting separatist leaders returned to office.
“A course towards the Russian Federation will be continued,” Denis Pushilin, the 37-year-old Donetsk leader and a former negotiator with Kiev, told journalists during his first media appearance since the poll.
“This is not only cultural and social integration, but also economic,” he added.
“We have already learned to live without Ukraine,” said Pushilin, who has been in charge of the region since August after the previous leader was killed in a bomb attack.
Kiev’s central election commission dismissed the results of the “illegal” votes and said the exercise was simply an excuse for Moscow to cement its grip on the disputed area.
But the Kremlin said the regions had “nothing left but to self organize” after being “abandoned” by Ukraine.
The so-called republics were declared in 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea and supported the outbreak of an anti-Kiev insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Kiev sees the move as a punishment for its pivot to Europe.
Western powers had asked Russia not to allow the polls to go ahead, arguing they would further hamper efforts to end a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people over four years.
While heavy fighting is over, the conflict regularly claims the lives of soldiers and civilians. Kiev said on Saturday that four Ukrainian soldiers had died in recent days.
Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funneling troops and arms across the border to fan the flames of the conflict.
Moscow has denied the claims despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.